Your chest tightens, your vision narrows, the world around you mumbles, and all you can hear is the thumping of your own heart as your brain plays images of the worst scenarios on repeat, cycling through slides of your fears until it decides to stop. At the same time, it feels like that moment is the moment you realize your feet can’t touch the bottom of a pool, the moment you start to wonder if your drowning. That’s an anxiety attack, and while they are triggered and experienced differently by different people, that’s how mine feel and Bloober Team’s Blair Witch replicated that.
In a game, that is dripping with Bloober Team’s signature style of psychological horror, what stands out among the fear-inducing mechanics is the realization that it’s your character’s mental health issues that make the game even harder. In Blair Witch, you play Ellis, a former combat veteran and police officer who has been battling PTSD and anxiety since he left the military. As you progress through the game, the Blair Witch uses your past guilt to manipulate your present, pushing you to her and creating intense psychological scenarios that use lighting, visual distortion, and jump scares to get your heart racing.
This navigation of Ellis’ guilt and identity is not well executed and outside of great mechanics that play into fear, Blair Witch’s narrative leaves a lot to be desired. Ellis confronting his past is confusing because we never receive a full understanding of it. This is my largest critique of the game as it comes to a head in a bloated 30-minute plus ending level that is as repetitive as it mind-warping. However, it’s the emotions I felt while playing Ellis that affected me more than his story ever could. It wasn’t Bloober Team’s take on his anxiety that fueled the game, but their ability to exploit my own.
At the start of Blair Witch, the black screen features white eyes with text that explains, “The future is not set in stone. Your Humanity will be judged. You are being watched.” This is eerie message works to set the tone of the game but also to inform you of the game’s best mechanics – it’s all procedurally generated. As you interact with your environment, choose fight or flight, and the way you treat your dog and surrounding the game learns, and as it learns your story is changed. While this mechanic works for replayability, it filled me with anxiety when coupled with Blair Witch’s other unique mechanic, Bullet.
As you wander through the Black Hills Forest in search of a missing child named Peter, you’re not alone. Instead, you’re searching and uncovering the mystery with the help of your best friend Bullet, a Belgian Malinois. Blair Witch doesn’t hold back in showing just how reliant you are on Bullet, and that reliance is what builds the impact of his mechanics. Every choice you make towards how to treat Bullet is watched.
By pressing the Left Bumper (on Xbox One, the platform I played the game on), you pull up a wheel menu that gives you options on how to interact with Bullet. You can direct him to seek, a vital mechanic to the game as Bullet directs you to each objective after finding objects and helps you collect items throughout the game. You can also reward him for being a good boy by petting him or alternatively reprimand him, something I only did accidentally when my bumper got stuck. You can also ask him to stay, a command I never used because leaving without Bullet scared me more than the tree monsters, and you can ask to stay close to you, the option I used most frequently given my anxiety about being without him.
Every single choice you make towards Bullet is monitored by the game and will dictate the ending that you receive, of which there are multiple. Initially, I was making sure to pet Bullet whenever he did a task because I wanted to make sure that the game was registering that I loved him. As Blair Witch continues, I switched from petting him performatively and began reacting to his needs. If Bullet whined, I would pet him. If he was growling, I would attempt to pet. After an encounter with a monster, I would pet. And before I knew it, Bullet was functioning for me the way he functions for Ellis, for emotional support.
In one of Blair Witch’s first intense moments, you lose Bullet. After you follow him into a ravine and slide down, you’re disoriented and all you can do is call for him. As you look around the ravine calling his name, your breathing gets louder, your heartbeat gets louder, the edges of the screen begin to blacken and the world begins closing in on you. You can’t interact with anything, you can’t do anything but call for Bullet. Ellis is in a full-blown anxiety attack and while playing, I teetered on the edge of frustration for not being able to interact with a collectible I found and they had a slow realization that maybe I had messed something up and lost Bullet right away. Maybe I had sent him off too far, maybe the game was punishing me.
Then, Bullet arrives. Ellis pets him and the screen begins to open again, the use of his breath dissipates, and the rest of the game brightens. Bullet is the way you stay connected to the world, he pulls you out of your dark moments, and this is established from the jump. He is more than a tool in the game and Blair Witch responds if you treat him like the best friend he is. As Bullet takes shape as the grounding element to Ellis’ PTSD episodes, I became extremely attached to him and once that bond was formed, Bloober Team was able to scare me.
I rescued my dog five years ago. She’s a mutt named Leia and she has a lot of baggage, but so do I. From the moment I brought her home, she clung to me when I cried when I panicked, and she continues to. She grounds me. In a flashback, one of many, we learn that Sheriff Lanning paired Ellis and Bullet because Bullet, like Ellis, had been through a lot. And throughout Blair Witch, you continue to go through a lot more.
At each turn, I found myself tapping my left bumper, calling for Bullet to come, making sure he was here. If I couldn’t see him I would worry. If he was whining, I would worry and it’s through this worry that the horror of the game leveraged. While the Blair Witch is altering reality and Carver is leaving gruesome things for us to find, it’s Ellis’ anxiety that works to hang a shadow of dread over the player. His anxiety and ours as we worry about Bullet is why the scares work.
When the monsters move through the trees and Bullet begins to bark, you have to shine a light on them to defeat them. As I spun to catch them, I wasn’t worried about restarting after I died, since Blair Witch respawns you at the same spot, I was instead worried about Bullet. Because like most mechanics in the game, you don’t understand them until it happens and so, I was afraid of watching Bullet die.
The game solidifies this bond further after the witch puts you through the emotional and psychological ringer, making you relive the war, your dissolving marriage, and more. She then drops you out of it and you’re clutching Bullet. You see his ear, his fur, you’re holding him, and he’s comforting you. It’s the player’s choice as to when Ellis lets him go, and for me, I held him there for a while, listening to Ellis’ thanks to Bullet. Again, Bullet saves you.
It’s all of this that makes the ending of the game all the more painful to complete. After following Carver’s orders in an attempt to get the location of the missing boy, he brings you back to the camp, with a bloody rag covering something. Having been led to the dead body of your friend and a stag, you expect more death but instead, you find a gun. Then Carver tasks you to shoot Bullet. You protest and refuse but after being knocked out you find Bullet wounded in a ravine, with Carver’s voice blaming you.
You pick him up and you walk with him through a ravine with the walls covered in signs which slowly become the words “LET DYING DOGS LIE” as you pass the same spot repeatedly. It hurts to read. Throughout it all, Bullet is crying, and as you struggle to keep walking you comfort him. Your vision blurs as it did in the other anxiety attacks in the game, and the choice is yours: keep walking or put him down. If you choose the latter, as I did, you will walk in a loop for minutes. His whines become more, a ringing starts, your vision gets worst and you pass-out and after that, you don’t see him until the last moment of the game.
The ending is why I know that the horror of Blair Witch is your anxiety. For more than 30-minutes, you work your way through scares without Bullet. The house morphs around you, monsters jump out, and the witch tests you and none of it hits in the way that the rest of the game did. Once Bullet is removed I was no longer worried — and in the game, even while being confronted with all of his mistakes and sins, Ellis doesn’t even seem scared.
The reason the end of Blair Witch doesn’t work is that the heart of the game is absent and as such, our anxieties that the Bloober Team has exploited for the bulk of the title are no longer being pushed. The game relies on Bullet to bring the emotion, and as any horror fans know, good horror is emotional. Good horror, the bone-deep feeling of fear and helplessness, comes from emotions in it, the relationships that you see on screen, and that you ultimately have made with the character themselves. Without emotion, the genre becomes jump scares and fake-outs and that’s what happens at the end of the game.
Blair Witch’s fault is that it reverts to a traditional psychological horror game instead of relying on its unique ability to craft a relationship between you and Bullet. The anxiety is gone in the end and replaced with jump scares and moving around monsters. In fact, nothing from Ellis’ past holds much weight without Bullet as the emotional anchor. And for me, as a player who relies on the support of my own four-legged friend, when Bullet left, so did my investment.
But through it all, Blair Witch is the first horror game that I’ve played where the emotions from the game drove the fear I felt. While Bloober team excels in creating immersive settings that are detailed enough to hold multiple layers of fear (it’s a bad pun but it fits), what they do in Blair Witch is less about scary environments and more about getting in your head through your heart. They exploited my anxiety perfectly and that’s the true horror of the game.
Kate Sánchez is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of But Why Tho? A Geek Community. There, she coordinates film, television, anime, and manga coverage. Kate is also a freelance journalist writing features on video games, anime, and film. Her focus as a critic is championing animation and international films and television series for inclusion in awards cycles.